Mystery men hunt cultural past stolen by ISIL

Rescuing stolen antiquities from Syria and Iraq is the secret mission of a new undercover organisation with wealthy backers.

ISIL militants destroy artefacts in Mosul. AFP
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ISIL’s destruction of antiquities in Syria and Iraq has prompted a secretive organisation to track and restore looted artefacts, while another international group wants to virtually recreate heritage lost to theft and vandalism.

It has no headquarters, no website, and no spokespersons prepared to see their real names in print or online.

Even the title of the secretive private organisation that has recently sprung up in response to the grave threat posed by ISIL to the cultural treasures of Syria and Iraq, has an anodyne feel to it.

But there is nothing dull about the self-imposed mission of the Committee for Shared Culture (CSC), a group of like-minded people who have come together to track down and recover the ancient artefacts that are – they fear – disappearing from archaeological sites throughout Iraq and Syria every day.

“We are a group of individuals who share a common interest in the ancient world,” says John Smith, a former classics student who spent some years working in the UAE and spoke on condition of anonymity.

“I have to consider the safety of my family,” he says.

It is a reasonable concern. ISIL has already demonstrated that it is capable of provoking, if not organising, violence in its name around the world, and if the CSC is successful in tracking down stolen pieces and the people who sell them to unscrupulous collectors, it will undoubtedly hit the ruthless organisation hard in the pocket.

“ISIL is definitely benefiting from the illegal trade – that is in no doubt,” Mr Smith says. “What we are trying to do is understand that illegal trade, map it out as best as we can, and then hand over what we have found to the relevant national authorities.”

The committee’s name is “rather bland”, he admits. “But what it recognises is that all of us have a stake in this material, and that for all of us what is happening is desperate and sad.”

That sense of universal loss is also the starting point for another project that has been set up in response to the theft and destruction of cultural artefacts in Iraq and Syria.

But while the undercover CSC sets about tracking down stolen objects, the international group of enthusiastic young professionals behind Project Mosul has an even more ambitious objective in mind.

By using the latest 3-D imaging technology, and crowdsourcing original images and manpower from volunteers through the internet, they plan the virtual recreation of stolen or destroyed artefacts.

These 3-D images will then be displayed in an online museum, where they can be seen and examined in detail from every angle.

Project Mosul was named after and inspired by the destruction of artefacts in Mosul museum, which was overrun by ISIL in February.

It was a “visceral” experience to read about and watch footage of the destruction of artefacts at Mosul, Hatra and Nimrud, says Chance Coughenour, founder of the project along with Matthew Vincent, and a fellow at an EU-funded project in Germany.

“It is absolutely heartbreaking to see heritage being destroyed in such a manner,” he says. “Destruction by natural causes, such as earthquakes, is bad enough.

“But seeing it done by other human beings has affected many people with no academic background or interest in archaeology, who have come to our website and offered to help.”

Although in no way will the online 3-D clones replace the lost treasures, the project offers “a message of hope”, says Mr Coughenour.

“By working together, it is possible to preserve our shared memory and connections to our cultural heritage, even renew and invigorate it, regardless of the acts of destruction currently being perpetrated.”

It promises to be a challenging task. “For an ideal 3-D reconstruction you need images from different angles and of the highest resolution,” says Mr Coughenour, from Pennsylvania in the US. “But what we’re trying to do is kind of reverse-engineer what was taken from the perspective of tourists.”

The response to appeals on Facebook and Twitter has been encouraging, and photographs of objects from many sites in the two countries have begun to flow in.

Now, through an online clearing house at, volunteers are being recruited to sort and catalogue the images, and begin the skilled technical work of preparing them for 3-D reconstruction.

Such citizen responses are made possible by this digital era, which allows individuals unencumbered by unwieldy bureaucracy to react quickly to events, and play the type of roles that in the past would have been the exclusive domain of national or international organisations.

Besides, in the face of the continuing ISIL onslaught “authorities are very busy doing very important things, such as trying to save people’s lives”, Mr Smith says.

“We got together because we thought something needed to be done about the cultural losses, and if we got our heads together we could at least try to play our part.”

There is a highly active illegal trade in antiquities, which are ending up in the private collections of unscrupulous wealthy individuals around the world, the CSC says.

“Some people are just looting stuff ad hoc because they recognise it has value, and it gets passed along a chain of various middle men, agents and dodgy dealers, who all add their cut,” Mr Smith says.

Other material is being looted to order, the organisation believes.

Either way, “our aim is to identify those chains and then do everything that lies within our gift to disrupt them”.

The dozen or so members of CSC – a kind of “pop-up” Interpol – boast a range of skills that together constitute an impressive threat to the shady networks plundering the shared culture of the past.

Their ranks include academics, linguists, institutions, legitimate collectors and – crucially for a squad combing the murky backwaters of the internet for clues – technical wizards using advanced algorithms to identify the wheelers, dealers and international networks exploiting the region’s conflict to line their own pockets.

“It’s actually wonderful what can be done these days, in a way that simply wasn’t possible 10 years ago,” Mr Smith says.

“It is possible to harvest vast amounts of data, some of which is out in the public domain, some of which is harder to access, and use it to generate interesting insights and throw up common names and places.

“There is a surprising amount we are able to achieve online.”

Using smart algorithms, the group can also search for images and key names and words.

Armed with catalogues and registers from national archives and other sources, “We know what a lot of this stuff looks like. So just as you can search for words and phrases on Google, there’s now a clever bit of technology that means we can start matching images,” Mr Smith says.

There is a third strand to the investigation: “Good old-fashioned human sleuthing, with people just going online into chatrooms and forums, having a look around and having conversations with people to try to work out what is going on.”

One thing the CSC has already learnt is that some of those involved in the criminal networks “are not the smartest crooks in the world”, Mr Smith says. “They’re chatting away about this stuff, not even in hidden chatrooms but on Facebook pages.

“We have identified some really interesting stuff. And the more we uncover, the more names we find and the patterns we start to recognise.

“We have already had a few lightbulb moments, and that’s very helpful. It means everybody is then able to direct their time and energy to following specific leads.”

Financial backing has come from an influential private organisation with a vested interest in protecting the world’s shared heritage. But the group would welcome more support, and is open to recruiting anyone who shares their concerns and thinks they have skills it could use.

With no names, numbers or even email addresses, getting in touch is a problem. Eventually, the CSC might put its own website online. But it says it will investigate any queries or tips passed to The National by readers.

Tracking down stolen pieces is one thing. But nothing, of course, not even online reconstruction, can replace priceless objects smashed by ISIL.

Without extensive and precise photography carried out for the purpose, the prospect of 3D-printing life-size replicas is little more than a dream. “We can only go so far,” Mr Coughenour says.

The online museum will, he admits, be only “a halfway house, a memory”. In the end, he says, this is about commemorating “everyone’s heritage, not just the people of Iraq or Syria, and it’s about helping people to understand what it means to destroy our universal human history”.